Machiavelli. A historian, diplomat, writer, politician, activist, philosopher. What an incredible life this individual lived, fortunate enough to be a part of the Renaissance period.
Born in 1469, Machiavelli was made Secretary to the Second Chancery of Florentine in 1498 after the infamous Medici family were forced out of power due to an invasion of French troops belonging to King Charles VIII.
In 1512, the Medicis returned to Florentine with the backing of Pope Julius II, displacing the current government and forcing Machiavelli once more out of his position.
It is widely understood that Machiavelli wrote The Prince to curry favour with the Medici family so that he could return to power. The controversial book was written in 1513 but was not published until 1532 – 5 years after Machiavelli’s death. Interestingly, the book was published by the grace and permission of Medici Pope Clement VII.
The Prince is essentially a political treatise explaining how a republic should handle diplomatic and internal affairs in a way that maximises power. While the book uses historical analysis to further emphasise its points, The Prince, as a text, marked the beginning of modern political philosophy with its dark, satirical undertones.
For example, Machiavelli uses Caterina Sforza, the late Lady of Imola and late Countess of Forlì, to illustrate how building fortresses in conquered territories can be unwise. Sforza established her position in Naples as Naples was en route to Forlì; Sforza believed that she could defend her republic from a French invasion by establishing her fortress on this strategic route. Sforza was, however, betrayed by the Neapolitan community who did not defend her from a French invasion as expected.
Machiavelli does not consider the morality of conquering territories, let alone the fact that establishing one’s base and sovereignty in conquered territories is ethically problematic from a civil society perspective. It is because of such analyses throughout the text that Machiavelli’s Prince is considered a 101 on strategy – an idea that the ends justify the means – whence the term Machiavellian arose.
The Prince followed Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, also retrospectively considered a political realist text. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, written later during the English Civil War, sealed political realism as a concept. In fact, Hobbes had been the first to translate both Thucydides’ History and Machiavelli’ Prince to English from Greek and Latin, respectively. Therefore, many agree that his ideas were influenced by Thucydides and Machiavelli – though, it would be interesting to explore the relationship between Thucydides and Machiavelli himself.
I would like to add that political realism is profoundly different from the philosophical realism attributed to Plato. Whereas philosophical realism defines objects by their universal characteristics, political realism can today be summarised as follows:
- The state of nature between humans is hostile
- Therefore the number one concern for humanity is survival
- Therefore a human being would pre-emptively strike another human being to avoid an attack on oneself
- Therefore human beings can be considered egoists in nature
- Therefore a sovereign must rule to maintain order between hostile egoists
- A sovereign nation is comprised of – and organised by – individuals
- Therefore the number one concern for nation-states is survival
- Therefore nation-states are preoccupied by power maximisation, and can too be considered egoist in character
The Prince continues to be referred to by millions of academics, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and occupational managers as a lesson on strategic management. My problem with this book, however, is its Eurocentric content. The discussion on how nations become formed did not arrive until Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1651, but Machiavelli too considers European history to form his observations on how leaders of republics should conduct themselves.
Eurocentrism is therefore a general problem amongst political realists: why do universities across Europe continue to use political realism as a lens to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, without any credible counterargument exposing a potentially misplaced theory?
The idea that a sovereign of any kind is better for a nation than the hostile state of nature does not hold for many who consider, say, the current situation in Syria. For them, the civil war, foreign invasion and rise of Daesh that followed Bashar Assad’s refusal to step down after a long authoritarian rule could not possibly be outmatched in hostility by the havoc that could have emerged from a genuine political transition in 2011. The civil war in Syria is now considered the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II – yet, according to Thomas Hobbes and his European experience of the English Civil War, authoritarian rule must logically be less damaging than a transitional state of nature void of any ruling government.
Finally, I would like to end on a paradox. Machiavelli demonstrates, throughout his book, that the ends justify the means. Yet, Machiavelli’s objective was almost certainly to return to power in the Florentine republic. Therefore, how can we trust that Machiavelli agrees with everything he writes in his own book? To what extent did Machiavelli write The Prince to impress the Medici family without any serious regard for consistency in his own thought?
The Prince is a fantastic book from a historical perspective, but I would not recommend using it as the only lens through which we continue to view world politics.